Toronto Maple Leafs' Post-67 Woes Indicative Of Strategic NHL-Wide Issues

Graeme Boyce@CivilizedGraemeCorrespondent INovember 29, 2010

Bozak dippsy doodling down the ice
Bozak dippsy doodling down the icePhillip MacCallum/Getty Images

There are several things that provoke an interesting debate among fans of the Leafs, and first among them would involve being a fly on the wall when Brian Burke was interviewed for his current gig by Richard Peddie and any other MLSE brass implicit in his hiring. 

The other debatable issues, based on ludicrous failure rates, include drafting teenagers and signing multi-year mega contracts.

Certainly these latter two issues are being keenly debated in at least a dozen other NHL cities today, as they impact not only the viability of the league but also its credibility.  Now, back to the fly.

Peddie: "What will you do?"

Burke: "Out with the bad air, in with the good."

Peddie: "How long will that take?

Burke: "Two years.  Okay, maybe three"

The Toronto Maple Leafs should have beaten both Buffalo and Ottawa this past weekend.  But they could not, and by now there are likely dozens of articles and posts offering a synopsis and evaluation of their on-ice work. 

These two defeats in particular had me reflecting on the results of two years of Brian Burke at the helm.  This is not a discussion regarding lofty ideals or dreams of winning The Cup.

In a business world dominated by measurable results these days, as opposed to so-called Blue Sky promises, Leafs ownership and the representatives must surely look at wins versus losses for a quick and realistic assessment of their revenue-churning asset.  Because, prior to Burke arriving on the scene solely to provide a Cup winner, the team was already quite profitable.

Augmenting coffers in the past, Leafs ownership could count on any number of names to sell jerseys: from Keon and Armstrong to Gilmour and Clark.  While this current depth of talent is being honed, the Maple Leafs are running out of names to sell, specifically those revered names to which we also apply a notion of heroism. 

In this regard, looking into the Crystal Ball, I wonder who a young Leafs fan might nowadays be expected to look up to, and say to a proud parent: "When I grow up, I want to be a hockey player just like..."  Kaberle?  Kulemin?  Kadri?  Okay, among the team, we do have uber-sniper Phil Kessel—one of Burke's primary foundation stone acquisitions, a person on whose shoulders we can expect a team to be built.

From among those available and interested, the league-imposed cap would restrict any delivery of players who could impact the on-ice results in the immediate term, so looking to the mid-term Burke acquired new coaches, trainers and managers to improve at both the major and minor league levels. 

If the Maple Leafs were indeed an organization simply intending to profit from various demographic bases then it would make sense to begin signing and marketing players given their family background and not necessarily on-ice skill sets.  The reality is that tickets for each game are all sold out, so the Leafs don't need to appeal to the growing local Asian market, for example.

Thus, tasked with the responsibility of signing players based purely on their skills (and presumably their ability to talk to the media), Burke did the right thing by building up his administration who set about to turn amateur hockey players into professionals, not simply players who are paid to play.  In the event his tactics fail to deliver a Cup-winning team, he will point to any number of front and back office improvements.

Dave Keon was MVP in the '67 playoffs, Frank Mahovalich was traded the next year and Tim Horton the year after—due mainly, I suppose, to his tirade against ownership dismissing Coach Punch Imlach, in the wake of his successes. 

Among the ingredients required to produce a winning team are not only the credentials associated with its management, but on-ice would simply include a balance of battle-hardened veterans and enthusiastic youngsters, presumably all well-trained and equipped. 

Back in the day, players signed contracts each year, after first showing up at training camp ready to prove their worth to managers and owners sitting in the stands.  Some drank their courage straight from a bottle. 

Shortly after expansion, securing players deemed valuable and maintaining momentum, delivering thus a suitable return on their investment, were critical in an era dominated by the growth of television audiences, and ad revenue and the aforementioned merchandise sales.

Nowadays, in order to compete, teams are forced to draft teenage players and hope that among each annual crop a few NHL-ready players will emerge.  On the other end of the spectrum, NHL teams located in huge urban markets, which must compete for media space alongside other popular pro sports, offer and sign long-term contracts with players who are only slightly above average.

This demonstrates, apparently, their mutual commitment to the franchise.

However, these contracts, and we have many examples today, create problems in the dressing rooms across the continent because people are people, and people have egos and people get jealous.  These days, Burke has a tremendous uphill battle of his own: to not only provide a winning team in Toronto but, most importantly, a Cup-winning team.

Of late, we have debated a winning team versus an entertaining team, and the former is where it's at.  The pressure is on and, although he will not admit it, Burke needs to do something in order to deliver a winning team.  Having recently stated his coach is remaining behind the bench, he is running out of excuses and surely Peddie, et al., will be looking at their options.

The Toronto Maple Leafs can no longer be accused of having a bunch of gutsy but slow veterans, though popular with the fans, on which to hang our collective Cup-winning hats.  The Leafs now have the youngest team in the NHL and yet in the biggest hockey market they cannot compete. 

I wonder what Larry Tannenbaum is saying about all this.